Overseas Filipinos: A Generation of New Heroes


Graphics 1  

 The Dispersal

The Dispersal.  There are millions of them: in the Middle East where you find Filipinos of all professions, in the U.S.A. and Canada where professionals and medical workers are in great abundance, in Italy and England as white collar professionals and domestic helpers, in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as entertainers and factory workers, and all over the world in an immense variety of professions. 

While the late greats Luciano Pavarotti and Michael Jackson regaled a Filipino audience for no more than one moment in time, Filipino overseas musicians have for years not only regaled a diversity of audiences but have communicated soothing calm and tranquility to so many in an otherwise turbulent world.

Many of us who have traveled a lot are not unfamiliar with them and the social costs they bear of working abroad:  loneliness, separation from their families, physical and psychological abuse by some employers, cultural shocks from foreign societies and legal shocks from their government, lack of respect and attention from their government officials, and remarks of contempt and of condescension from more wealthy Filipino tourists who tend to look down on them as desperate wage earners.  Add to these woes the volatile and widely divergent nature of working conditions in oveseas job sites, combined with high recruitment fees and diminished wages and benefits.

Every year more than half a million of our countrymen become part of this Diaspora.  The seven seas of Planet Earth throb with ships manned by some 250,000 Filipino merchant marines.  And the demand for these maritime workers keeps increasing by leaps and bounds. 

One does not exaggerate in saying that in these times all accidents and disasters of either natural or human causes anywhere are most likely to affect some individuals of Filipino nationality because, finally, Filipinos have now become familiar faces all over the earth. 

Spanish GalleonHistorical Roots.  Some people may correctly point out that there is nothing new in this.  From the time of the Galleon Trade across the Pacific more than 300 years ago, Filipinos have already started moving outward. 

Recent scholarship has revealed that some Filipino communities in Lousiana, U.S.A. can trace their roots back many generations farther than could Alex Haley’s Afro-American forebears in that famous bestseller “Roots”.

It is also true that the great railway infrastructure which finally united the American states in a physical sense was established in great part by Overseas Filipino Workers.  The agro-industrial development of Guam, Hawaii and California was also accomplished on bent backs of Filipino migrant workers.

In the late 19th century, those we now revere as national heroes for their leadership of the propaganda movement which made the Filipino nation were themselves exiles and Overseas Filipinos in Madrid and all over Europe.  And they were great achievers in their various professions.

Not too long ago, this predominantly but by no means exclusively Catholic country rejoiced when the Vatican canonized the first Filipino saint — San Lorenzo Ruiz.  We all know that this officially proclaimed saint was an Overseas Filipino who met martyrdom in Japan. 

The OF Phenomena.  What then makes the present phenomena new and significant?  First, it is a massive phenomena of Filipinos on the move:  the past four decades have seen millions upon millions of our brothers and sisters leave their accustomed world of barangays for the foreign job sites of just about every continent in the globe.  This mass movement was, for the most part, non-documented and family sponsored.

Departing OFWs-2Analysts will correctly place accent on the fact that this massive migration was not caused so much by the lure of foreign lights but, rather, by the irresistible push of local poverty and unemployment.  College graduates and undergraduates comprised more than 50% of the millions of Filipino workers abroad. 

Many of the Filipinos one meets at the Statue Square in Hongkong were yesterday’s highly respected elementary school teachers but who must earn their keep cleaning the toilets of middle class Hongkong residents whose forebears a few generations back were amahs of the grandparents of these same Filipinos.

This outward movement will someday end too, but apparently not in the near future.  Today’s youth don’t feel working in the Philippines will get them a living wage, and so the most popular fields in Philippine schools are nursing, maritime studies, hotel and restaurant management, physical theraphy and caregiver, in addition to computer-related courses which can land one a job about anywhere.

While it has become fashionable to bemoan the lack of global competitiveness  among Philippine exports, some may be tempted to point out that our most competitive industry, as one cynic disparagingly remarked, is the “export of warm bodies.”  While the cynical remark is not totally untrue, it would be more accurate simply to assert that, indeed, the Filipino nation has somehow produced a world class workforce whose technological know-how and skills have been developed and tested in the globally competitive job sites of all the continents in the world.

Voluntary Economic Exiles.  How are we to view these brothers and sisters of ours presently in Diaspora across the four corners of the earth?  One has suggested that they are like “voluntary economic exiles”.

The concept of exilium or exile is an old one, denoting prolonged absence from one’s country imposed by an authority or other circumstances as a punitive measure.  Among early peoples, it was a means of punishment:  to be deprived of the comfort and protection of one’s family, group, tribe or nation.  The Greeks, and later the Romans, practiced it to punish either political or criminal offenses in lieu of the death penalty, correctly believing that exile is a kind of death.  The Anglo-Saxons did the same thing and produced what we now call Australia.

In the late 19th century political revolutionaries of various countries were forced into exile, such as Mohandas Gandhi of India, Vladimir Lenin of Russia, Sun Yat Sen and Chou-En-Lai of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, and numerous other patriots who had to leave their respective countries in order to return and save it from native or foreign oppressors.

It would not be a wrong perception if anyone calls our present-day Overseas Filipinos exiles — “voluntary economic exiles”.  “Voluntary” because no vested authority imposed their prolonged absence from home as a  punitive measure.  “Economic exiles”, nonetheless, because they were, for the most part, forced outward by economic circumstances and structures which would have meant an economic death for their families and loved ones had they not decided to struggle for survival and a better economic life. 


International Currencies

As a result of this mass movement of exiles, the non-merchandise inflows to the national economy increased by billions of US dollars yearly, from the time commercial banks and money remittance companies improved their services and marketing effort. 

Last year alone the total OFW remittances amounted to US$16.4 Billion (about PhP790 Billion at today’s rate),  And that is no small sum of money, which certainly kept our economy afloat in these times of crises.

Transforming Savings to Productive Investments. Economist do not tire of telling us that for the Philippines to achieve rapid economic growth, we must have a high savings rate which logically results in a high investment rate. 

The Asian Development Bank has revealed that domestic savings financed the bulk of investments in newly industrializing countries.  Thus, for our country to catch up with our ASEAN neighbors, our savings mobilization needs to be improved.

While there is so much talk about focusing on foreign savings in terms of both foreign loans and foreign investments — talk which translates into reality only with tremendous difficulties — it is quite possible that we really haven’t tapped enough of our domestic savings to finance investment growth with the necessary consequence of economic growth. 

We are often told that domestic savings is principally generated by export receipts from garments, electronics, coconut, sugar, what have we.  Again, the fairly obvious must be pointed out:  that the money holdings of Overseas Filipinos can constitute the most significant chunk of our economy’s gross national savings, IF we could, as we must, find effective ways to channel these savings to investments.

There are many concrete proposals to channel these savings to investment.  Here is one dramatic example:  the current requirement for some 3.8 million housing units comprising a backlog accumulated through the years which still have to be built at the cost of some PhP900 Billion is one area where the Overseas Filipinos could be motivated to channel their holdings to investments.

The extreme but notheless well meaning proposal of mobilizing the money holdings of Overseas Filipinos to retire portions of our foreign debts — the servicing of which consumes half the general appropriations each year — should also be examined by our economic planners with an open mind.

Returning OFW-2A Heroic Generation.  It has been often said that the community today is the planet, not the bounded nation-state. 

The Filipino Diaspora is something unique because unlike the Jews of Old, the Filipinos dispersed across various corners of the world today have a homeland to easily return to.  Each Overseas Filipino shares the same ordeal, carries a share of the national burden, not in the bright moments of his country’s achievements, but in the silence of his or her personal agonies.

Philippine history took a new turn the past four decades with the development of a heroic generation composed of our Overseas Filipinos.  Former Pres. Fidel V. Ramos may just hit the nail right on the head when he called them our new heroes.

Throughout human history and mythology, the standard path of the hero follows the pattern of three distinguished moments:  the moment of separation or severance from his accustomed world, the moment of penetration to some source of power, and thirdly, the moment of life-enhancing return. 

Whether presented in the vast images of the Orient, in the vigorous narrations of the Greeks and the Romans, or in the majestic legends of the Bible and the Koran, the hero’s path follows this pattern.  Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest, the really creative and heroic acts are represented as those deriving from severance from (or dying for) one’s everyday world, what happens in the interval of the hero’s non-entity and exploration, and his/her return as one reborn, made great and filled with power to give boons to his/her fellows.

You have the local heroes such as the mythical Aeneas to Rome, Ulysses to the Greeks, the historical Moses to the Jews; or the universal heroes like Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohammad the Prophet who bring a timeless message for the entire world.  Or we can speak of a generation of heroes.  A hero with a million and more faces, such as the Filipino who leaves his/her home, goes out to the unknown regions of the world, and return to enhance the life of his/her family and folks; imbued with new knowledge and broader outlook, more strongly independent, and with a greater awareness and spirit of development. 

Tennyson may have written some lines for him/her as well when he made the mythical Ulysses say:  “That which we are:  one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and faith, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

In today’s Philippines, will our government and society welcome and support this generation of heroic persons or will we merely treat them with benign neglect and a half-hidden smile of pity for their efforts and their woes?

OFW Indignation Rally-2Concerns for Overseas Filipinos.  How to give more protection to the majority overseas Filipino women.  How to deter illegal recruiters, both domestic and foreign.  How to better prepare our OFs for cultural shocks from foreign societies and the stigma of work displacement when they, as many of them eventually do, re-enter the domestic job market.  How to ensure that our system of financial intermediation will be effective in converting OF savings to productive investments.  How to bring the Sector to the mainstream of the political process through the facility of absentee voting.  What kind of people should become labor attaches in the first place. 

All these issues and more are challenges faced and must be addressed by our government and society if we are to acknowledge and accord the rightful position and contributions of our OFs in our common pursuit of national development with social equity.

Let it not be said of us during our time what Dante said in “Inferno”:

“Per mi si va nella citta dolente (For me, we have to go to the suffering city),

Per me si va nell’ eterno dolore (For me, we go to the eternal pain),

Per me si va tra Perduta Gente (For me, we shall all go among the lost people).”

We would rather, as we should, apply to our time what the “People of the Book” have held dearly down the centuries, and I paraphrase:

“The Spirit of Wisdom and Service is upon us,

To announce Good News to the poor is our task,

To proclaim release for prisoners,

To give sight to the blind,

To proclaim a new dispensation for exiles and

Bind the wounds of broken victims.”

To the millions of Overseas Filipinos, professionals and workers alike, wherever they are, this humble Tribute is offered.

Author: Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 11 July 2009